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The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 247 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.
As the next slate of Ultimate Fighting Championship title fights has slowly trickled out, there have been obvious matchups (Khabib Nurmagomedov-Tony Ferguson at UFC 249), logical but not necessarily given matchups (Weili Zhang-Joanna Jedrzejczyk at UFC 248) and fights that are confusing at first blush but make more sense upon further review (Israel Adesanya-Yoel Romero at UFC 248). Then there is the proposed bantamweight clash at UFC 250. Few title fights in recent memory have been as perplexing as the idea of Henry Cejudo defending against Jose Aldo.
Aldo, of course, has lost two straight and is 3-5 across his last eight fights, with more stoppage losses (three) than wins (two). He has a grand total of zero career victories at bantamweight. The case for Aldo largely rests on the idea that he should have received the decision in his last fight against Marlon Moraes. However, Moraes outlanded Aldo in significant and total strikes in two of the three rounds, with media scores largely split down the middle in spite of commentary that heavily favored Aldo. He did better than expected given what had appeared to be a difficult weight cut, but the decision for Moraes was nothing resembling a robbery.
At one point, there was an epidemic when it came to the UFC granting title fights to undeserving recipients. That trend has dissipated in recent years, as the most deserving fighters based on merit are largely getting their opportunities up and down the different weight classes. It has added stability to the promotion and enhanced the prestige of the championships because the best-of-the-best fighters are facing each other. The UFC is moving in the other direction with Cejudo-Aldo.
Aldo isn’t the only fighter getting a title shot coming off multiple losses: Yoel Romero has lost two in a row leading into his title fight with Adesanya. However, there are some key differences between Aldo and Romero. To begin with, Romero hasn’t been stopped since 2011. His three recent losses all came via close decisions to elite opponents in fights where Romero was impressive, regardless of which way the decision went. That has not been true at all in many of Aldo’s recent defeats.
The more important distinction between Aldo and Romero comes in the alternative challengers in each respective division. Paulo Henrique Costa would have received the next shot against Adesanya were it not for an injury. With the injury taking Costa out of the picture for now, there was nothing resembling an obvious next challenger for Adesanya. He beat Robert Whittaker and Kelvin Gastelum recently; Darren Till just entered the weight class; and Jack Hermansson just lost.
Romero was the highest ranked challenger available, and the only real alternative was Jared Cannonier. The 35-year-old Cannonier had a decent case to be made but not an overwhelming one, given that he had been struggling at light heavyweight before three recent middleweight wins against solid but not spectacular competition. It feels like all things being equal Cannonier should probably win one or two more fights to earn a title shot, and he would be rushed a little bit due to lack of alternatives if he received the next one.
By contrast, bantamweight has a wealth of worthy and intriguing challengers for Cejudo. Even putting aside Moraes since he lost recently to Cejudo, there is the surging Aljamain Sterling, who has graduated from prospect to top contender with four straight wins. Sterling has been fighting top competition each time out, and those four wins were against opponents with a collective record of 74-8-1 when not fighting Sterling. He has a well-rounded game and a marketable personality. Plus, he deserves a title shot.
If Sterling is not desirable for whatever reason, Cory Sandhagen has also emerged as a worthy challenger with a perfect 5-0 UFC record. He is coming off the biggest win of his career over Raphael Assuncao. Sandhagen’s career resume is strikingly similar to Dominick Reyes, the next opponent for Jon Jones at light heavyweight. He doesn’t jump off the page, but he has done enough to put himself firmly in the conversation.
Finally, there is Russian bruiser Petr Yan. In short order, Yan has become an intimidating force, and he one ups Sandhagen with six UFC wins thus far and no defeats. His most recent win over popular legend Urijah Faber was a brutal showcase that announced Yan as a force to the broader UFC audience. Yan isn’t a star yet, but he has star qualities and the Russian MMA fan base is growing thanks in significant part to Nurmagomedov’s dominance.
Those three challengers are fresh and deserving. There isn’t the need to go back to a former champion who hasn’t been able to build momentum in his new weight class. What’s more, Aldo isn’t the sort of needle mover that will make a big difference on pay-per-view. That is pretty much always why more deserving challengers are bypassed, but in Aldo’s case, he’s a well-known name but hasn’t been a draw except when matched against Conor McGregor. Aldo would obviously mean more to a live crowd in Sao Paulo, Brazil, than an American or Russian contender, but that’s such a small consideration in the big picture.
Given Aldo’s career resume, it’s hard to get too agitated over his getting gifted a title shot at this point. Still, it’s a surprising and disappointing decision—as a signal of merit again being put on the backburner and because it’s creating a backlog of bantamweight challengers. The sport’s better off with more clarity, and it will take some time to sort things out with this deferment. It’s why this is the most dubious choice for a UFC title fight in quite some time.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.